Group conflict theory as a source of attitude change

According to group conflict theorists [Bla67], [Olz92], [Qui95] negative attitudes towards other groups stem from the view that certain prerogatives of the social group in question are threatened by these groups. Negative outgroup attitudes are rooted in perceived threat, i.e. the perception that one’s own group has to compete with other social groups for scarce goods. These scarce goods subject to so-called ethnic competition can relate to material interests, but can also include power and status. Following this argument, negative attitudes to immigration are typically caused by the view that immigrants threaten the opportunities of autochthonous citizens to find a well paid job, an affordable house, or undermine local cultural life.

Blalock [Bla67] proposed that the level of perceived threat is influenced by the context of actual competitive conditions in which intergroup relations take shape. In other words, the more actual ethnic competition, the more people will feel threatened by immigration. In group conflict literature, actual competitive conditions have primarily been operationalised by two variables: the size of the minority group present and the economic conditions. The presence of large immigrant groups and unfavourable economic conditions are expected to induce perceptions of threat and, in consequence, to cause negative attitudes towards immigration. Blalock [Bla67] mentioned two reasons why the presence of large immigrant groups reinforces threat perceptions. Firstly, a more sizeable minority group means a larger number of ethnic competitors and, consequently, a more intense struggle for scarce goods. Secondly, sizeable minority groups can lead to a stronger perceived threat because larger minority groups have more potential for political mobilisation. Group conflict theory predicts that economic context also shapes levels of perceived threat. The logic behind this proposition is that less favourable economic conditions cause the material goods that are the object of competition to become scarcer. In more prosperous times, on the other hand, competition becomes less intense and the perception that majority and minority groups are locked in a zero sum game is reduced [Bla67], [Sch02], [Sem06].

Most empirical tests of group conflict theory have been performed in a static, cross-sectional setting. Various studies have compared countries or regions to find out whether negative attitudes to outgroups are more prevalent in contexts with larger minority groups and less favourable economic conditions. This body of research has provided some empirical support for group conflict hypotheses. Based on a multilevel analysis of 12 European countries, Quillian [Qui95] concludes that prejudice is more widespread in countries with a high proportion of non-EU immigrants and a low gross domestic product (GDP) per capita. Several other studies confirmed the findings that minority group size [Coe04], [Lah04], [Sch02], [Sch08], [Sem04], [Sem08] or economic conditions [Sem08], [Sch08] affect outgroup attitudes. Nevertheless, support for group conflict theory is not unambiguous, as there is also conflicting evidence that cannot be ignored (see for example: [Sid07], [Str08].

The use of data on attitude changes makes it possible to approach group conflict theory from a different point of view, and to test a more dynamic formulation of this theoretical framework. Rather than attempting to link absolute levels of outgroup attitudes to group threat factors, we focus on attitude changes specifically. Following Olzak [Olz92], one can expect attitude changes to be driven by changes in the intensity of actual competition rather than by its absolute level. Following this logic, actual competition could remain constant at a high level without affecting outgroup attitudes. It is only when sudden changes in minority group size or economic conditions occur that outgroup attitudes evolve. Several reasons can be given for the existence of such a process. Rapid changes in immigration or economic conditions might affect the labour, housing and other markets more strongly than slow-paced evolution because of the limited time available to absorb the changes [Olz92]. In addition, sudden changes can have an important impact on popular perceptions because changes in group conflict factors usually receive extensive media coverage.

To summarise, this dynamic formulation of group conflict theory expects changes in actual competition rather than absolute levels of competition to have an impact on changes in outgroup attitudes. This leads to the following research hypotheses:

Hypothesis 1: In countries with a growing (contracting) immigrant population, attitudes to immigration become more (less) restrictive.

Hypothesis 2: In countries with a deteriorating (improving) economic situation, attitudes to immigration become more (less) restrictive.

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